On April 14, the Republican National Committee announced its withdrawal from the Commission on Presidential Debates, which has monopolized “major party” debates since 1988. The RNC, claiming bias on the CPD’s part in selecting moderators, pledged to “find newer, better debate platforms.”
While the RNC’s reasons are self-serving, this may be the most encouraging development in presidential election politics in decades. The American public hasn’t seen anything like a genuine, all-party presidential debate since 1996.
Why? Ross Perot. After the late Texan’s two well-financed independent (1992) and third party (1996) presidential outings, CPD established a requirement excluding any candidate who doesn’t demonstrate at least 15% across five CPD-selected polls.
Did I mention that CPD was established by the Republican and Democratic Parties, and is operated by a “bi-partisan” — that is, Democratic and Republican — board?
CPD doesn’t sponsor debates designed to inform the American public. Instead, it puts on a quadrennial series of expensive — illegally expensive, if treated as in-kind campaign contributions — infomercials for two, and only two, presidential candidates: The two the “bi-partisan” organization supports.
Libertarian, Green, and other third party and independent candidates need not apply. Not even candidates who’ve made it over onerous ballot access hurdles (also created by the Big Two) and could conceivably rack up 270 electoral votes to win the election.
It’s a safe bet that if a third party or independent candidate hits the 15% mark in several polls, those won’t be the polls the CPD uses.
And it’s an even safer bet that if a third party or independent candidate hits 15% in too many polls to be ignored, CPD will raise the threshold to 20%.
Additionally, the major party candidates quietly negotiate “memoranda of understanding” with each other to ensure the public doesn’t see third party or independent candidates on stage next to the Big Two outside of CPD events. The 2004 memorandum, for example, committed Republican George W. Bush and Democrat John Kerry to “not appear at any other debate or adversarial forum with any other presidential or vice presidential candidate.”
None of this election-rigging skulduggery explains the RNC’s withdrawal from CPD, of course. Republicans, like Democrats, are fine with subjecting candidates who might cost their own candidates votes to effective media blackouts. The RNC’s move is just a tantrum over perceived “unfairness” to Republican nominees in the form of any questions more controversial than “boxers or briefs?” during the infomercials … er, “debates.”
But that tantrum creates an opportunity for US “mainstream media,” working with political organizations other than CPD, to open up the American electoral process to real competition.
Will our media and civic institutions take up the challenge of busting the CPD monopoly and putting on real presidential debates featuring all viable candidates? If so, they’ll deserve our thanks.
Thomas L. Knapp (Twitter: @thomaslknapp) is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.